Returning from the Brink

As Sheila Jasanoff suggests in “Back from the Brink: Truth and Trust in the Public Sphere” (Issues, Summer 2017), we are unlikely to successfully resolve the current crisis in the politics of truth through simple appeals to trust in the authority of science. Not only does the historical record she cites show that controversies about policy-relevant science are a recurrent feature of politics in the United States, but there is also no reason to expect such debates to ever disappear.

Virtually every area of policy making today involves technical expertise, and if one includes the social and behavioral sciences, it is difficult to think of exceptions. Moreover, science controversies rarely concern the most solid and well established “core” of scientific knowledge. Instead, these disputes typically take place near the frontiers of research, where new knowledge and emerging technologies remain under construction and evidence is often incomplete and provisional.

When uncertain science meets controversial policy choices and conflicting values, a simple distinction between facts and values tends to break down. Indeed, setting the evidentiary threshold needed to justify treating a scientific claim as a policy-relevant fact becomes a value-laden decision.

In such a context, appeal to the authority of contested “facts” is a weak form of argument, easily dismissed as grounded in bias. Reaffirming our commitment to democratic values, inclusiveness, principles of open decision making, and basic norms of civil public debate offers a more promising strategy for advancing the goal of producing Jasanoff’s “serviceable truths.” This is especially true if this commitment is coupled to a concerted effort to hold accountable those who violate those norms or enable others to do so.

Professor of Science & Technology Studies

Cornell University

Cite this Article

“Returning from the Brink.” Issues in Science and Technology 34, no. 1 (Fall 2017).

Vol. XXXIV, No. 1, Fall 2017